One of the exciting events in my PHV days was going on a Volksmarch (people’s walk). Since I was probably in 1st and 2nd grade during most of my Volksmarches, the details below may be sketchy. But that’s a disclaimer that can be applied to this entire blog, so let’s jump into my recollection of these events.
A Volksmarch is essentially a non-competitive hike through scenic terrain. A route would be set up in advance, and participants would just walk the route at their own pace. I can remember marches through deep forested areas, cutting across farmers’ fields, skirting small villages, and sometimes following roads for a stretch. It seems there must have been tremendous cooperation with the local community to set these routes up.
The standard distance of a Volksmarch was 10 kilometers (a little over 6 miles), but many of them offered longer routes which I think might’ve gone as high as 25km. Sometimes the routes would share the same space for a while but then diverge, and it was always great fun for us kids to find the route markers and then inform our parents about which way we needed to go next. I don’t recall ever seeing many people doing the longer routes, except for the occasional serious runner. Maybe these longer routes were open to cyclists as well?
You had to register at the start of the route. I don’t know if there was an entry fee or not, since that was something for the grown-ups to handle, but I remember that each march had some unique rewards such as pins for your Volksmarching hat or medals to display in your home — I assume these came at a price, if they weren’t included in an entry fee. Oh yes, we had Volksmarching hats and walking sticks as well. All we were missing were the lederhosen.
When you registered, you would get a card or booklet which needed to be stamped at various checkpoints along the route. It was always exciting to round a corner and see the next checkpoint ahead, especially if they were serving food so you could grab a wurst with mustard!
One thing I recall about Germany was that they had a lot of playgrounds, sometimes built of high-quality wood, and sometimes in the most unlikely of places. I know at least once we were marching through a forest and came across a large wooden play area, and of course we insisted on taking a break to run around in it for a while. Although I don’t think this was part of a Volksmarch, I remember another wooden play area shaped like a American wild west fort complete with a set of Indian teepees nearby…and I remember this just being alongside a road not near anything.
As fun as these Volksmarches were, I do recall that 10km could get a bit taxing on the feet and maybe the last kilometer or so might involve a little whining that was absent earlier in the walk. But knowing that a neat new pin or medal waited at the finish line was enough to carry us through. For a time we had a cloth panel hanging on the wall with various Volksmarching medals pinned to it. I also remember that we used to buy some sort of mint candy at the start of the walk, something very similar to Mentos if not exactly that, and we considered them “energy pills” which would help us get through all 10 kilometers.
A little while after leaving Germany, I remember doing a Volksmarch in or around Fort Polk, Leesville, Louisiana. It was great to see the concept brought to the States, presumably by others who had served overseas, but walking through hot, humid Louisiana didn’t have quite the same charm as doing it in the German countryside.